Sunday, 29 November 2009

Waterloo at Wellington for Theists

Another debate organised by Intelligence Squared, this time at Wellington College in Berkshire. The motion was 'Atheism is the new fundamentalism', proposed by Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford and Charles Moore, opposed by A C Grayling and Richard Dawkins. Moderated by Anthony Seldon, headmaster at the school. He's a professor at the College of Teachers. Who teaches them, one wonders. This one was streamed online, so I won't go into too much detail; I think it should be available to watch very soon.

EDIT: watch the debate here.

Outside the venue

Celeb watch; two sightings. Seventies chanteuse, Lynsey De Paul (who'd have thought?) and Jeremy Paxman.

Richard Harries

The very *motion* is an ad hominem response to atheism, in my opinion; rather than address the arguments, cast 'new' atheism (they tend to qualify the atheism) as the new fundamentalism, and consequently dismiss it as worthless. This implicit notion fed through to both Harries' and Moore's opening statements, which addressed what fundamentalism is, and why it's a bad thing (no argument from me there), but also name-called Richard Dawkins, sitting bemused opposite them. Harries called him an 'attack dog' and Moore described a scene in which 'Commandant Dawkins' would have theists all gunned down, presumably for daring to object to rational argument.

A C Grayling

The tenor of both presentations was that atheism, as represented by Dawkins, adopted a *certainty* about the truth that was not justified. I think Harries called it "not allowing for the great 'perhaps'". This seems very odd to me, because faith in god is surely about banishing doubt from one's belief - I blogged on this some time back, prompted by an article by a Catholic priest.

Charles Moore

For me, this is a straw man; whilst new atheist scientists consider that the Christian God is almost certainly non-existent, they cannot discount any god's existent, nor the existence of Russell's teapot, and Dawkins corrected them on this point. Harries made the point that The God Delusion doesn't mention the 'balance of probabilities', but chapter 4 includes quite a discussion on this. Interestingly, Grayling as a philosopher seems less bound by this scientific principle, and happily confirmed his certainty about God's non-existence. This I could only agree with if he's talking about some concept that suffers from non-cognitivism. Which might apply to God.

Richard Dawkins

After many demonstrations of good sense from Grayling and Dawkins, Harries was left grasping at the value of the numinous, as if this was the heart of the matter. Moore complained that such debates never analysed the more complicated ideas that were at issue (this after a question on consciousness, I think). A pretty vacant comment, after he had spoken for a motion that 'atheism is the new fundamentalism', an approach that is *calculated* to dismiss the arguments of one's opponents.

The final score: 363 for, 1070 against, 85 don't knows. Predictable from the feeling I got inside the hall.

Oh, and I said to Jeremy Paxman in the moving throng on the way out, 'Can I ask you how you voted?'. 'Well, there you are then', he replied, cryptically. I should have pressed him, but I imagine he gets fed up with that in public.


  • Anonymous says:
    30 November 2009 at 03:38

    Hello again, Linus. I was there myself! Baldy guy in the white shirt who asked Moore and Harries about nuanced theology -v- creationist ignorance.

    Won't bother with a full write-up as I did with the Hitchens/Fry massacre of the Catholic Church in London last month, because it's going on YouTube in a few hours.

    However, I will say that it was not as cordial and polite as I predicted on my appetite wetter on my own blog. A bit more hand-to-throat. Magic! Loved every minute.


  • Mark Jones says:
    30 November 2009 at 04:02

    Cheers, Manic; your question was just about the best of the evening, in fact (you were two or three rows behind me).

    Can't believe we had a Lane-Craig nutter sitting nearby!

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